VANCOUVER -- As B.C. police are on the defensive over how they respond to mental health calls, a program in Oregon which takes police out of the equation is getting serious attention in Vancouver.

The unusual approach by CAHOOTS has worked for 30 years in Eugene, Ore., proponents say, has saved lives and saves millions of dollars a year by replacing police cars and sworn officers with trained civilians in a van.

“CAHOOTS is a great model for us to be looking at in Vancouver and exactly the conversation we should be learning from,” said Vancouver City Councillor Christine Boyle.

CAHOOTS stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets,” and is getting national attention during a movement to defund the police, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

Fundamentally, CAHOOTS workers take a different approach in a variety of mental health calls including wellness checks, mental health crises, substance abuse and threats of suicide, the agency’s Kimber Hawes told ABC affiliate KEZI 9 News this month.

“Police are trained to perceive stuff as a threat, and we are trained exactly the opposite,” she said.

These are problems that, in the hands of police, have turned violent, such as the RCMP response to a wellness check on Mona Wang. A video that’s evidence in a lawsuit shows the responding Kelowna Mountie dragging Wang through the hallways of her apartment building, pushing her head to the ground, and stepping on her head.

After the video was reported on by CTV News, a top B.C. Mountie called for nurses to accompany officers on all wellness checks.

Another case in Nanaimo saw Mounties there respond to a call for help by apprehending former firefighter Shanna Blanchard. When she said she didn’t think they had the legal grounds, one of them punched her in the mouth, she said, causing her to lose a tooth. She said Mounties put a spit hood on and she worried she would drown in her own blood.

Today, the CAHOOTS program has three vans, some 40 staff, and is one service advocates point to when discussing what “defunding the police” might look like.

The Eugene and Springfield, Ore., police budgets are together $90 million a year, according to CAHOOTS materials. CAHOOTS handles 17 per cent of their calls for just $2.1 million a year.

And though in B.C., many mental health calls could be presumed violent and require the presence of an armed officer, CAHOOTS attended 24,000 calls last year, and only called for police backup 150 times.

A Vancouver police sergeant said she’s cautiously open to the model.

“It’s a smaller population, not exactly the same demographic as our city in Vancouver,” said Sgt. AJ Benefield during a police technical briefing on mental health response on Thursday. “Before us opting to have that approach we’d have to analyze how they’re doing things.”

However many mental health calls don’t present themselves as such up front, a VPD spokesperson said. They come in as calls requiring a police response, such as assault, or a disturbance, and then officers arrive, assess the situation, and determine if another resource is required.

The VPD face a rising tide of mental health calls: 4,836 in 2019, compared to just 2,276 in 2010. The agency is responding with a variety of approaches in conjunction with Vancouver Coastal Health, including Assertive Outreach Teams and and Assertive Community Treatment that is designed to proactively connect people in need with social workers and nurses.

The approach has resulted in mental health calls actually becoming a smaller component of what the VPD respond to, officers said.

“A lot of things we’ve been doing in the community, especially in regards to mental health for example, the VPD has really been the leader in a lot of initiatives” said Supt. Martin Bruce on Thursday.

Even if one department were to adopt a CAHOOTS-like model, there would be hurdles to having it be dispatched separately. Emergency dispatch in B.C. is done to police, fire and ambulance by E-Comm, which is a not-for-profit agency owned by shareholders that include police departments.

“If this type of response model is something the Province, our first responder partners or mental health service organizations would like us to explore further, we would be very open to discussing and re-imagining out important role under a new model,” said E-Comm spokesperson Jasmine Bradley.

The province has named a special committee of the B.C. legislature to examine and modernize the Police Act, which governs policing in the province. It will examine the extent of systemic racism and review the role of police with respect to complex social issues that include mental health.